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In April, San Diego Opera announced that it was closing its doors and shocked the opera world. What happened next was even more surprising. FRED COHN reports.

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San Diego Opera staff members and the cast of Don Quixote applaud the audience on April 13, which had been announced as the company’s final performance.
© J. Kat Photo/ 2014
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A protester outside the Civic Theatre in San Diego following San Diego Opera’s announced closing
© J. Kat Photo/ 2014
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SDO’s Ian Campbell
© J. Katarzyna Woronowicz 2014

It is one of the strangest chapters in the history of American opera. Earlier this year, working with key members of his board, Ian Campbell, the general director, artistic director and CEO of San Diego Opera, determined that the company he had led for thirty-one years should shut its doors. He almost succeeded in getting his way. 

On March 19, 2014, Campbell made his case at a board meeting, which he had called with only a few days' notice. The board heard presentations from Harry Suh, its vice president of finance, and Karen Cohn, its president, that seemed irrefutable: San Diego Opera was in no financial shape to go forward, and the best course would be to shutter its doors at the end of the current season and liquidate its assets. Even before a vote was taken, Campbell outlined a procedure for informing staff and media of the company's demise. After an emotional Q&A session with Campbell and two lawyers he had brought in to back up his case, the motion to fold came to a vote. Thirty-four people present were eligible, and thirty-three of them voted "yes." Only the very last board member polled, lawyer David Kleinfeld, offered a "no" vote, earning a dagger glance from Cohn, according to a board member who wishes not to be identified. But the die was cast: San Diego Opera would cease to exist. Its four dozen staffers would be let go, and the April 13 performance of Massenet's Don Quixote would be its last. 

The decision set off immediate tremors throughout the company, the community and the opera world at large. Campbell announced the news to the full staff at a meeting after an editor from the Voice of San Diego broke a press embargo via Twitter. (The press release, written by an outside firm brought in by Campbell, had been sent to the media even before the board had taken its vote.) "We were white with shock, frozen in place," says Nicolas Reveles, the company's education director. Members of the music and production staff who had attended the meeting then went to a rehearsal for Don Quixote and informed the cast. "It was terrible to go to rehearsal," says bass Ferruccio Furlanetto, who was singing in both Don Quixote and the Verdi Requiem, "and see all these people whom I've worked with for so many years, crying." At the gala Requiem the next night, Reveles says, "Elderly ladies were coming up to me and whispering into my ear, 'What the fuck?'" 

To be sure, the news from San Diego had a familiar ring. In recent years, Baltimore Opera Company, Connecticut Opera, Orlando Opera and Southern California's Opera Pacific had all gone out of business, and the grueling death rattle of New York City Opera had ended just months before. But all of those companies ended up well in the red, while San Diego Opera, around the time of the announcement, had total assets (including non-liquid assets) of roughly $15 million and was in the midst of bustling preparations for its fiftieth-anniversary season. Given the pattern of opera-company shutdowns, San Diego was a special case indeed. 

"Almost all of the time, when a company closes, it's after a number of well-publicized cries for help, either implicit or explicit," says Marc Scorca, president and CEO of the service organization Opera America. "You know a company is in desperate straits when they cancel the rest of the season because they don't have the cash on hand. Staff members take pay cuts or are furloughed. There are tense negotiations with vendors, venues and unions. None of these conditions were evident here." 

There's no question that the company was facing significant financial problems. A 2003 bequest of $10 million from philanthropist Joan Kroc was now depleted. Longtime donors had cut back on their contributions, and the company's development department had been unsuccessful in finding new sources of funding. Campbell's style of opera production — large-scale stagings with big-name casts — was probably unsustainable; even a star-studded Ballo in Maschera (Piotr Beczala, Krassimira Stoyanova, Stephanie Blythe) that was playing the week of the closing announcement had drawn only 74 percent capacity. "We had become a company that manufactured VCRs — and expected people to buy VCRs," says Keith Fisher, now the company's chief operating officer. 

In his press release, Campbell argued that it was in the best interests of all concerned for San Diego Opera to "go out with dignity." But almost immediately many observers wondered whether the shutdown was absolutely necessary. "After the decision was made, everyone stopped and started asking, 'What the hell happened here?'" says Fisher, who had been serving at the time as executive director. Among those raising the question were a number of board members who had voted "yes" on the motion to close. The day after the board meeting, James Merritt — a businessman who just that season had married fellow board member Carol Lazier on the set of Ballo — looked over the cash-flow analysis that had been handed out at the meeting and realized that, strangely, it contained information identical to a report distributed to the board at a March 3 meeting. "We had been told then that, absent an infusion of new cash and new donors, the company would run out of money in January 2015," says Merritt. "But it wasn't 'Therefore, barring X, Y and Z, the company will have to shut down.'" In that context, the March 19 recommendation was, in Merritt's opinion, "a head-scratcher."

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Outside the Civic Theatre in San Diego, local opera-lovers protest San Diego Opera’s proposed closing
© J. Kat Photo/ 2014

Given the extreme nature of the board's decision — and the subsequent regret of some of its members — it may seem remarkable that the motion passed in the first place. "I've never encountered board leadership who wanted to close the company that they were stewards of!" says Scorca. But Campbell fully supported the proposal, and he and his ex-wife, Ann Spira Campbell — the former director of strategic planning and special projects, recently promoted to deputy general director — had extraordinarily close ties to core board members, especially Faye Wilson, CEO and cofounder of Wilson Boyles & Company, who held the title "lifetime director." (Both Campbells declined to be interviewed for this article.) After mounting international-level opera in San Diego for thirty-one years, Campbell had achieved such a high standing among his board that few even considered questioning his decisions: to some it seemed as if he behaved more like the board's boss than its employee. 

"We all had over the years become so comfortable with Ian's leadership that if he said we couldn't make it, it meant we couldn't make it," says Sarah Marsh-Rebelo, a board member who cast one of the "yes" votes and later became involved in the effort to keep the company going.  

In the view of many observers, the board functioned more like an elite social club than a governance body, its makeup exemplified by the "Dow Divas," an investment club of prosperous women who had established an investment fund intended to underwrite the Opera and help fund its annual gala. In July 2013, perhaps in an effort to move beyond its insular image, the board appointed Stacy Rosenberg, a lawyer and former executive director of Friends of Karen — an organization devoted to providing support for critically ill children — to succeed Cohn as president. Cohn meanwhile moved over to the recently created post of chairman, charged with overseeing a fiftieth-anniversary fundraising drive.

Rosenberg established a strategic-planning committee to examine ways of surmounting San Diego Opera's financial difficulties and moving it into the future. The committee looked at changing the nature of the company's productions — making them less expensive, broadening their appeal. It also started seeking out areas for internal cost-cutting, taking a particularly close look at Ann Campbell's development department, whose size and salary structure seemed out of proportion to its fundraising success. But Ann Campbell refused to cooperate with their investigation, and Faye Wilson told Rosenberg that she was stepping out of line. The situation became so uncomfortable that Rosenberg resigned, and Cohn resumed her former post as president. The strategic-planning committee's findings never saw the light of day.

No matter how thoroughly Ian Campbell had gained the good opinion of many board members, the view from below was considerably less rosy. His management style, almost universally described as "top-down," allowed for little input from his staff. Earlier this year, a staffer filed a hostile work environment complaint; in response, Cohn, Wilson and Karen Sedgwick-Tyler, vice president of finance, commissioned a "360-degree review" that polled certain members of the senior staff about their dealings with Campbell. Although the investigation did not find enough evidence to sustain the charge, staffers still expected the board to review the findings. But the full board never received the report. 

When the board began to assess the company's projected financial responsibilities after liquidation, it became clear that Ian and Ann Campbell would be the two biggest creditors. The circumstances caused many to wonder about the role played in the decision by the Campbells' financial interests. Ian Campbell's salary had long been questioned in the local news media. Tax forms released subsequent to the decision to close showed that in 2012–13 he had earned more than $432,000 in base pay alone, a figure that made him, in proportion to his company's expenditures, the highest-paid general manager in American opera. In 2009 (the most recent year for which Opera America figures are available), company expenses were approximately $17.5 million, and Campbell made $414,500; that same year, Robert M. Heuer, running Florida Grand Opera on a $17 million budget, made $215,000. Ann Campbell, meanwhile, made more than $300,000. The rationale behind these numbers was opaque; the compensation committee, headed by Wilson, almost never took minutes of its meetings. Around the time of the Campbells' divorce in March 2013, Ann received her promotion to deputy director; the sole signature on her contract was her ex-husband's. 

In the wake of the decision to close, some board members started demanding projections of future payments owed to the Campbells. Cohn said that the staff, busy producing Don Quixote, did not have time to assemble the documents requested, and that the Campbells' contracts were confidential and not to be shared with the full board. But a contract for Ian Campbell, leaked to the media, stipulated that he would receive his full salary through 2017 — more than three years after the company was scheduled to close. As outrage escalated, the Campbells brought in Mark Fabiani, the crisis-control expert who had advised Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky entanglement and Lance Armstrong during his doping scandal. Weeks later, an amendment to Ian Campbell's contract, dated from 2010, surfaced, limiting his payout to the end of the calendar year of his termination. Strangely, the amendment — which seemed to address the ugliest rumors about Campbell's motives in the shutdown — had not come to light during the initial firestorm over compensation. It had been printed on a free-floating piece of paper, reportedly discovered in the back of Campbell's personnel file. 

"Ian's not making any money off of this!" says Karen Cohn. "It's a campaign of lies to ruin his career."

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Stephanie Blythe, Kathleen Kim and Piotr Beczala in SDO’s Ballo, March 2014
© Ken Howard 2014

Within a couple of days of the closure announcement, a movement started among board members, staffers and the community at large to save the opera company. Mark Scorca called Keith Fisher, who put him in touch with board member Courtney Ann Coyle. Scorca encouraged her to get in touch with other board members intent on exploring the possibility of keeping the company open. Scorca also started hearing from company members who were irate about the closure. Even though Opera America does not as a rule intervene in the operations of member companies, San Diego struck Scorca as a special case. On March 30, he met with a group of board members to discuss strategies for resuscitating the company. The next day, the full board convened and voted to delay the closure by two weeks. The meeting's most dramatic moment came when Carol Lazier, on the spur of the moment, stood up and announced she would donate $1 million to explore ways to sustain San Diego Opera. Scorca subsequently brought in Kevin Smith — former head of Minnesota Opera and the self-described "Red Adair of opera companies" — to examine the company's books and find areas for cost-cutting. 

During the same period, the company's rank and file were also mobilizing. A group of stage personnel, spearheaded by chorister Chris Stephens — the company rep for the performers' union AGMA — formed a "White Knight Committee" dedicated to enlisting the community in the effort to save San Diego Opera. (The name came from a statement from Campbell to the effect that "no white knight" was in sight to keep the company financially viable.) The committee met with the mayor of San Diego, Kevin Faulconer, sang for the City Council and staged a town-hall meeting to build awareness for the save-the-opera effort. "These were not people with sad-sack long faces," says Merritt, who was invited to a White Knight meeting. "These were people saying, 'We're not going to go down without a fight.'"

The movement to avoid closure was gathering public support. An online petition garnered 21,287 signatures. Stunningly, a crowdfunding campaign turned into a bracing success, raising more than $2 million, most of it in small amounts. Almost fifty percent of the donors had never given to San Diego Opera — a circumstance indicating financial support for the company in areas beyond the small group of high rollers that had traditionally been the development department's bailiwick. "If the community had said to us, 'No, we aren't engaged, we don't care, we don't want to donate,' that would have given us a message," says Courtney Ann Coyle, now the board's executive vice president. "But that isn't the feedback we got."

Meanwhile, Ian Campbell's reputation within the community was unraveling. Traditionally, he had given a curtain speech at the end of the season, but it became clear that if he were to appear at the April 5 opening night of Don Quixote, he would be booed. The staff thought it would be better for Nic Reveles to step out and thank the audience, while offering a save-the-opera pitch. But Karen Cohn and Faye Wilson issued a memo forbidding anyone but Campbell to speak. As expected, when Campbell came out, he was greeted with a hail of jeers and heckles from the rafters. (A video of the incident was immediately broadcast on YouTube.)

The situation came to a head at an April 17 board meeting, called to enable Kevin Smith and a committee dedicated to saving the company to present their cost-cutting findings. The gathering quickly grew contentious. "It was like going to a hockey match," says Faye Wilson. Midway through, Cohn stormed out, followed by the Campbells and eight other board members. On her way out the door, Wilson shouted, "Those idiots!" When the dust settled, just twenty-five of the fifty-seven former members were left on the opera board. Lazier was named as its new president. On April 25, Ian and Ann Campbell were placed on leave, and Keith Fisher was promoted to COO. The Campbells' employment came to an end officially on May 16. Meanwhile, the California attorney general's office began an audit of the company's financial dealings — an investigation that is ongoing as of this writing. 

On May 19, Carol Lazier was able to step forward with definitive news: the reconstituted board had voted to keep the company open. The 2015 season would go forward with three of its four previously announced productions — La Bohème, Don Giovanni and Nixon in China, along with its fiftieth-anniversary gala. "The public spoke, we listened, and we're open for business," Lazier said in a press statement.

Soon afterward, William Mason, the "happily retired" general director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, was brought in as artistic advisor to shepherd the company while it seeks a new chief. "My job is to assist in any way I can, then get the hell out of the way when somebody else takes over," Mason says. 

The "new" San Diego Opera is proceeding as a considerably leaner operation than the one that Ian Campbell had managed. The 2015 budget is down to $10 million, sharply less than the $17 million originally slotted by Campbell. The shift has involved a certain amount of bloodletting: the entire staff, along with part-timers and visiting artists, has had to take a ten-percent pay cut, and thirteen staffers have been affected by layoffs, contract changes or pay reductions beyond that ten percent. A planned 2015 Tannhäuser was canceled. The Don Giovanni production, originally slated as an import from Deutsche Oper Berlin, is now using sets borrowed from Cincinnati Opera; Houston Grand Opera, in a gesture of solidarity, has lent its Nixon in China production free of charge. One significant change: the donor tent outside the Civic Theatre — a perk for deep-pocketed funders, and long an embodiment of the company's elitist image — is now a thing of the past.

No matter what lies ahead for San Diego Opera, its resurrection is a piece of unequivocally good news in the American opera world — lately a territory dominated by crisis and uncertainty. It's also a demonstration of the power a community can summon when it decides, against considerable odds, to sustain a beloved institution. "This is literally the greatest accomplishment of my life," says the White Knight Committee's Chris Stephens. 

But even with cost-cutting, the company's continued good health is by no means a slam-dunk. As this article was going to press in early July, the 2015 season still stood just under $2 million short of its fundraising goal. In order to keep afloat, San Diego Opera will need to maintain the level of support engendered by recent events and work hard to draw in new, younger, more ethnically diverse audiences. "It's going to be a struggle every year," says Courtney Ann Coyle. "There are no guarantees of forever." spacer 

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